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The New Sherman Letters
Extraordinary correspondence, never published before, takes us inside the mind of a military genius. Here is William Tecumseh Sherman in the heat of action inventing modern warfare, grieving the death of his little boy, struggling to hold Kentucky with levies, rolling invincibly across Georgia, and—always—battling the newspapermen whose stories, he believes, are killing his soldiers.
July/August 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 5
The cause of Sherman’s enmity toward the press is simple: Northern newspapers repeatedly and in great detail alerted the South that an attack was imminent. The telegraph, the railroad, and the daily press had made it possible to disseminate information at a rate and in quantities undreamed of a generation before, but the newspapermen still saw their job in the old, simple terms: get out the story. That the story could now be gotten out with a speed that put its subjects’ lives at hazard was not immediately apparent. Sherman was among the first—and was certainly the most vocal—of the military men who had to cope with the fact that the Industrial Revolution had overtaken the Bill of Rights. The dimensions of the problem became clear to him even before he went into battle.
On July 17, 1861, The New York Times reported: “The army in Virginia today took up the line of march for Richmond, via Fairfax and Manassas. The force starting today was fully fifty thousand strong...about three thousand Regular Infantry, Cavalry and Artillery, and fifty thousand Volunteers....” On the same day, the Washington Star provided a detailed order of battle: “The column on the extreme right is commanded by Gen. Tyler. That consists of the following excellent troops, viz: the Maine Second, the First, Second and Third Connecticut regiments; the New York Second, the First and Second Ohio....”
The First Battle of Bull Run ended catastrophically for the North, and whether or not the newspapermen were to blame, the indiscretion of the press before the battle still burned in Sherman’s mind two years later when he wrote his foster father: “Now in these modern times a class of men has been begotten & attend our camps & armies gathering minute information of our strength, plans & purposes & publishes them so as to reach the enemy in time to serve his purposes. Such publications do not add a man to our strength, in noways benefit us, but are invaluable to the enemy. You know that this class published in advance all the plans of the Manassas Movement [which] enabled [Gen. Joseph E. Johnston]...to reinforce Beauregard whereby McDowell was defeated & the enemy gained tremendous strength & we lost in comparison....”*
*Portions of this and all the following letters that Sherman wrote in the field—some with many abbreviations and repetitions—have been edited for the sake of clarity.
If Sherman had little patience with the press after Bull Run, however, the press soon would have no patience with him.
After his first fight, Sherman wrote of the “shameless flight of the armed mob we led into Virginia,” and he expected to be discharged along with all the other leaders of the battle. But two weeks later the War Department announced the promotion of various colonels, “all of whom,” Sherman wrote in his Memoirs, had “shared the common stampede.” His name was among them. Now a brigadier general of volunteers, he was ordered west to Kentucky, to the newly formed Department of the Cumberland as second-in-command to Brig. Gen. Robert Anderson, the much-acclaimed hero of Fort Sumter.
When Kentucky, although a slave state, finally made up its official mind to remain in the Union, the Confederate general Albert Sidney Johnston advanced his Rebel troops into the state and began pushing toward Louisville. Against this invasion there was little at hand of organized military manpower, but Sherman was able to set out a defensive position using available home guards and volunteers. As he explained to Senator Ewing, his command made him most uneasy:
“I never did like to serve with volunteers, because instead of being governed they govern....The volunteers...with their unbridled will are killing hogs, cattle, fence rails, and taking hay and wheat, all calculated to turn the people against us.
“I have no authoritative information of what our Enemy is doing, but I know Buckner and G. A. Smith who command, and take it for granted that they see at a glance the weakness of my position, and Buckner was raised in this neighborhood and knows the ground perfectly....If the reinforcements designed for us are delayed I cannot foresee the consequences, for the country is all ambush—Woods envelop us with roads & paths familiar to them and strange to us and we are tied down.
“I have a telegraph from Anderson saying he is compelled to divert some reinforcements coming to us to another quarter and so I suppose I must meet the shock with whatever I have, viz about 5000 volunteers dwindling daily by sickness and causes peculiar to them.”